Although the Middle East was for centuries a majority-Christian region, many now commonly call it “the Muslim world.” Its Christian past, as well as indigenous Christian communities, are often ignored.
Like the rest of the Middle East, Iraq is today a majority-Muslim country, but its demography did not change because of natural reasons. Decades-long persecution and murders of Christians led to the decimation of that community.
One of Iraq’s indigenous communities is the Assyrians, who have lived there for millennia. They still constitute a majority in many towns of the Nineveh Plains, but their population has tremendously declined due to crimes committed by various groups, such as Iraqi governments, Kurds, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and Iranian-affiliated armed militias.
One such crime is the Simele Massacre, which occurred from late July until September 16, 1933. It still awaits official recognition from both the Iraqi government and international community, and is a largely forgotten massacre that took place less than two years after the country’s founding. Up to 3,000 Assyrian Christian men, women, and children were murdered during this event.
Assyrians, both in the region and diaspora, have for decades advocated to gain recognition for the genocide and other massacres committed against their people.
On February 22, a resolution was introduced in the US House about the Simele Massacre. The resolution expresses:
It is U.S. policy to officially recognize and remember the Simele Massacre, to reject efforts to associate the U.S. government with denial of the massacre, and to encourage education and public understanding of the massacre and its relevance to modern-day crimes against humanity.
Sam Darmo, a prominent Assyrian rights advocate, is leading the efforts for gaining US recognition for the massacre. In 2001, he started digitizing and collecting thousands of documents regarding it. He has since investigated the British archives in London, the UN library in Geneva, and Assyrian historical documents, among other sources.
“This resolution is a historic achievement for us,” Darmo said. He continued:
We provided historical evidence regarding the massacre to Congresswoman Debbie Lesko, who presented the resolution to the House. We need recognition from the Iraqi government. And to succeed, we need the support of other countries, as well. Hence, official recognition of this massacre by the US would be a milestone for the Assyrian people.
Iraqi governments have misinformed other nations about this crime, added Darmo. He explained:
The Iraqis under their new constitution have recognized the massacres against the Kurds, the Shia, the Turkmens, and others in Iraq, but they have failed to mention any crimes against Assyrians.
We Assyrians have also been abandoned by the British. Eyewitnesses confirm British airplanes were filming the atrocities by Iraqi troops. During the Simele massacre, the Iraqi government was an ally of the British so the British have not allowed access to these videos.
Assyrians were also allied with the British. We fought on the side of the allies in the WWI and WWII against Germany. However, the British have never declassified the videos of the massacre. Hence, we are asking the British to allow us to access these videos to tell the world what was done to the Assyrians.
The Assyrians, a native people of modern-day Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran, were exposed to several massacres throughout history. Historians record that the first massacre of Assyrians in modern times took place in the 1840s in northern Mesopotamia. Then, from 1915 to 1923, Assyrians—alongside Greeks and Armenians—were victims of genocide in Ottoman Turkey, leaving around 300,000 Assyrians dead and innumerable women abducted. Assyrians call the crime “seyfo,” which means “sword” in the Assyrian language, for swords were widely used to murder the victims.
A year later, Assyrians in the region of Hakkari in southeast Turkey were exposed to yet another massacre in 1924 and 1925. “Despicable acts, such as massacres, rape and looting,” were committed against Assyrians, writes Racho Donef.
Eight years later in 1933, Assyrians in Iraq were exposed to a massacre at the hands of the Iraqi military and Kurdish irregulars.
Efrem Yildiz, a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic studies at the University of Salamanca, told what the Simele massacre means for Assyrian people:
The Assyrian genocide of Simele represents a drastic time for the Assyrian people because they had not yet recovered from the Christian genocide of 1915 by Ottoman Turkey, and again they had to suffer in their own flesh not only betrayal by their British allies but also by going through again for the massacre of several thousand people who years before had given themselves to the cause of the allies. Therefore, this genocide, apart from decimating the Assyrian population again, represents a terrible betrayal. Without the Assyrian Levis, which was the first Iraqi military force established in 1915 by the British and which showed allegiance to the UK until it was disbanded in 1955, the Allies would never have managed to bring order to Mesopotamia. After surrendering to the cause, Assyrians were victims of a terrible massacre, a sign of undeserved abandonment and the loss of any hope to reorganize as a people and a nation. This is what the genocide of Simele represents for the Assyrians. It is another point of deep sadness for Assyrian history.
It is a question of justice that the Simele genocide should be recognized by Western governments in general and by the United States in particular. It is a historical fact that all governments know that the Assyrians were subjected to a ruthless slaughter. It is a reality that no one can deny. It is time for justice to be done with the Assyrian people, and for this it is necessary to publicly acknowledge the drama, destruction, and lack of protection that they have suffered and still suffer. If the United States truly believes in historical and social justice, it should recognize the Simele massacre as a starting point to begin working on gaining these people their nation in their natural territory, which is Assyria.
In 1942, Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer, coined the word “genocide” to refer to the mass destruction of groups in response to crimes against humanity, such as the Simele Massacre. Hannibal Travis, professor of law at Florida International University, said:
Raphael Lemkin was inspired by what he read about Simele and the Assyrians to attempt to draft an international prohibition on both local and international “barbarism” and “vandalism,” which later evolved into the “crime of genocide.”
Research conducted by Gregory H. Stanton shows that there are ten documented stages of how it is possible for genocide to occur. Those stages are classification, symbolization, discrimination, dehumanization, organization, polarization, preparation, persecution, extermination, and denial.
“The human rights implications of recognizing a past genocide are multifaceted,” Travis added.
First, remembrance of the existence and targeting of the genocide victims postpones the final stage of genocide, the erasure of the group’s very memory. Second, the commemoration of the perpetrators’ acts may help reduce their becoming hero figures that inspire still more genocidal or homicidal acts, as with the commemoration in a condemnatory and mourning way of the acts of Nazis and their allies in occupied Europe and North Africa, or of the acts of Saddam Hussein in Halabja or the Bedinan area or of the Islamic State (ISIS) group in the Kocho area or Qahataniya. Third, recognition and the prohibition of denial promote the foundations of the right to life, specifically the investigation of killings, the repair of some of the damage to the families and communities brought about by exposure to death, and the restoration of a sustainable lifestyle in the regions where the right to life was trampled upon (as opposed to the aggrandizement of a system of conquest, plunder, and denial). Civilized legal systems are trending towards a recognition that human rights tribunals are vital for appeals in the final instance from discriminatory or destructive acts blessed by national courts or administrators.
But the resolution in the House to recognize the genocide can help prevent future attacks. As Anahit Khosroeva, a historian and genocide scholar, said, “It is important to get recognition from a superpower like the US that has influence in Iraq.” While the Iraq government should recognize these crimes, she explained, “We are wholeheartedly grateful for those members of the United States Congress who have crafted and are advocating for this resolution… We hope this courageous act by the US Congress will apply pressure on the central government of Iraq to honor the victims’ memory by taking the humane steps towards reconciliation.”